At the start of the tournament pundits, coaches and fans alike scratched heads, furrowed brows and speculated tentatively as to who was the favourite for the 2014 Six Nations title. The unpredictability of the tournament is what makes it such compulsive viewing. Wales, though in possession of the most experienced, most successful lineup had once again stuttered when faced with southern-hemisphere competition. England were shorn of their midfield, including Manu Tuilagi, world-class by anybody’s standards. Ireland, meanwhile, were ageing and under new management. France, ever an unknown quantity, could do everything or nothing.
New stars were duly ushered into the international arena, with Gaël Fickou, Luther Burrell and Liam Williams making headlines, headlines duly stolen by the retirement of a legend, the game giving a reverend and heartfelt goodbye to the greatest northern hemisphere player of the age as Brian O’Driscoll broke records, flung reverse passes, filled newspaper column inches and bowed out to applause from all corners of the rugby world. Although I could go on, the tributes already poured out speak for themselves, a truly inimitable player and surely a good-quality BBC panelist for many years to come.
Here are my humble reflections, assertions and musings on how the Six Nations went for each team.
France are, without a shadow of a doubt, the most frustrating team in international rugby. Criticised by Jeremy Guscott during the championship of reneging on Gallic flair, they seemed to be playing at half-speed throughout the championship – that they (technically) could have won it on the final weekend is testament to their capabilities. Had they fought as hard against Ireland and England as they did against their other opponents then they would probably have come away with the title.
One senses that a shrug of the shoulders, a sigh form Philippe Saint-Andre and a general “oh well” will be all that greets the result in France. Saint-Andre, having been incumbent head coach since 2011, seems every weekend to trial a new half-back pairing, play second-rows at flanker and wonder what Fofana should do this time out. For a team of such talent, they should expect to win the 6 Nations: Ireland, Wales and England always expect to win. Knowing the French, though, they could confound myself and the rugby world to be a dark horse for the World Cup, having blinded us with a facade of incoherence and feigned indifference the whole way.
Ireland, painfully denied the glory of a long-overdue win against the All Blacks in the autumn played with accuracy, tenacity and most important of all consistency to claim the title. Joe Schmidt managed to transfer his aura of assured competence to his team whose experience kept the nerves at bay. Ireland never looked like losing form after losing to England, whose energy took Ireland by surprise.
Wales will arguably be the team most perturbed by their campaign. They had much to lose this tournament and it was a troubled couple of months. High-scoring wins over Italy and Scotland will not make up for the manner in which they lost to England and Ireland, unable to manage a try in either game. The key injuries they have suffered have set them up for a butchering at the hands of South Africa in the summer: they can only hope those who replace Warburton, Halfpenny and company will really step up and perform.
Whilst commentators harked back to Gaël Fickou’s last-minute try against England as snatching away the Grand Slam, it was more accurately the two easy tries for Yoann Huget early in the France game that really spelt failure. At Twickenham, though, a quiet confidence and belief in the team is brewing that will be a worry for ‘group-of-death’ opponents Wales and Australia in particular ahead of next year’s World Cup. To lose the opener in the closing minutes and go on to win the remaining four games points to the determination and confidence which Lancaster has been trying to instil in his charges since day one. How ill-advised the appointment of Martin Johnson in 2008 seems now that England have a coach whose slow rise from P.E. teacher to national supremo was built on coaching merit. All roads point to Twickenham and 2015; expectation of victory is high, but this squad have beaten every team in the world bar South Africa over the last few years.
As for Scotland, it is hard to say how much better they would have done with sane selection decisions: as it was, a dire tournament can be blamed squarely on Scott Johnson who, most bizarrely of all, axed battle-hardened captain Kelly Brown for the England game, similarly treating David Denton and Greig Laidlaw with a heavy and ill-judged hand. Thank goodness he has gone, but why on earth is his failure being rewarded with a spot further up the SRU hierarchy? The mind baffles.
Italy suffered another poor tournament and one can’t help but feel the Italy vs Scotland game will be the wooden spoon decider for the next couple of years again (not forgetting, of course, that France managed to win it last year). New talent is emerging, Josh Furno and Tommy ‘Tomasso’ Allen showing promise but with Parrisse and Castrogiovanni getting older they had better hope there’s more talent waiting in the wings.